S. Sudan: No power-sharing without political reform

By Vision Reporter

At the Annual Retreat of the NRM at Kyankwanzi, Prof Mahmood Mamdani gave a speech analysing the genesis of the South Sudan crisis, its ripple effects and the way forward.

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At the Annual Retreat of the National Resistance Movement at Kyankwanzi (February 11, 2014), Prof Mahmood Mamdani gave a speech analysing the genesis of the South Sudan crisis, its ripple effects and the way forward. We bring you the full speech in two parts.

By Prof. Mahmood Mamdani

There are two great examples of self-determination in post-colonial Africa, Eritrea and South Sudan. Eritrean independence came after a struggle lasting nearly four decades, one that ended in military victory over the Mengistu regime — the Derg. The larger context was also important. With the end of the Cold War, the US shed its fear of local independence turning into a Trojan horse for a rival superpower.

In South Sudan, the internal situation was marked by a military stalemate. The external factor turned out to be decisive. Nothing else, but the real fear that it could be the next on the American list of post-9/11 targets, after Afghanistan and Iraq, explains why the Government of Sudan agreed to hold an independence referendum in the South when it had not lost the war.

LEFT-RIGHT: President Salva Kiir, the late John Garang and Kiir's former deputy Dr. Riek Machar

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 turned out to be a shoddy affair, rushed by those in a hurry to birth an independent South. The people of South Sudan are just beginning to pay the price for that haste.

The CPA was premised on a militarist assumption that only those with the capacity to wage war have the right to determine the terms of the peace. The talks, thus, rendered illegitimate the political opposition in both the north and the south at the stroke of a pen. Doubling as both army and movement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in the South emerged as the precocious double of the National Congress Party (NCP) in the north.

Following the referendum, South Sudan became autonomous in 2005 and independent in 2011. The CPA reinforced the most negative of the legacies of the liberation war. The sense that ‘liberators’ could do no wrong reinforced the aversion to internal reform and laid the seeds of the present crisis.

More than any other state, South Sudan was a child of the war on terror. That South Sudan commands Africa’s second most important known oil deposits has made this ride even smoother. SPLA has long been used to basking in the halo conferred on those officially acknowledged as ‘victims’ of terror.

In an era driven by the assumption that a victim can do no wrong, it has been coddled and absolved of responsibility. This, too, was a factor preventing reform.

Whereas the ruling party in the north was rightly and roundly criticised for electoral malpractice and fraud in the elections of April 2010, there was not even muted criticism when it came to similar practices by the SPLM in the South that same year. When the referendum on self-determination returned a 99.8% yes vote in the South, the “international community” lauded the result — when they would have pooh poohed it anywhere else in the world.

Children from the Dinka ethnic group pose at a cattle camp in the town of Yirol. PHOTO/AFP


The malpractices in the north led to a renewed insurgency in South Kordofan. In the South, there was the insurgency that followed in the wake of George Athor losing the gubernatorial bid in Jonglei State because the SPLM endorsed another candidate, Kuol Manyang Juuk. It provided a foretaste of how electoral politics operate when the ruling party doubles as the army.

When the SPLA/M seemed to split in nearly two halves in December 2013, each determined to devour the whole, the Western press was at a loss. Used to routinely lauding the struggle of “the Christian and animist African south” against “the Muslim Arab north,” the mainstream press looked for an equally easy and formulaic explanation for the civil war in South Sudan.

That fallback explanation — ‘tribalism’ — evoked the conventional wisdom that Africans may be quick at learning the arts of war, but seem genetically resistant to learning the arts of peace. From this point of view, the current conflict is between a Dinka-led government and a Nuer-led rebellion. This same stock explanation claims that the conflict may degenerate into ‘genocidal’ warfare.

Conveniently, this posture masks the responsibility of both Western powers and the regional association known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in condoning the sorts of practices that have prepared the ground for the rebellion. In particular, it masks the responsibility of two powers: the US and Uganda.

An independent South Sudan was a key objective for the US during the war on terror. Establishing the Ugandan state’s strategic importance in the regional war on terror has been key to the Government (Uganda) of retaining US support in spite of its adverse record at home.

The ethnic question

South Sudan is a multi-ethnic society. No ethnic group constitutes a majority, but the Dinka and the Nuer make up 4.8 million or 57% of South Sudan population between them.

Displaced people carry water from outside as they walk toward the entrance of a UNMISS base in Malakal. PHOTO/AFP

With an estimated 3.2 million Dinka and 1.6 million Nuer, the Dinka outnumber the Nuer by a factor of two to one. Dinka exist in seven out of 10 South Sudan states, with the majority found in Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal, Warap and Lakes states.

The Nuer live mainly in Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei states. The two ethnic groups share a common culture, have similar languages and practise an agro-pastoralist economy. Why, then, the conflict between them?

The idea that the Nuer and to a lesser extent the Dinka, are naturally war-like was first advanced by British anthropologists, chief among them, Edward Evans-Pritchard. Colonial discourse depicted South Sudan as a land inhabited by an array of nomadic “tribal” groups. Their relentless competition over water and pasture generated periodical cycles of violent attacks between them. Evans-Pritchard described the Nuer as a “wild offshoot of Dinka.”

The problem with the Nuer, he wrote, was that “every Nuer, the product of hard upbringing, deeply democratic and easily aroused to violence, considers himself as good as his neighbour.” Evans-Pritchard was describing a deeply democratic culture. He was describing less the Nuer problem than the British colonial problem with the Nuer: the Nuer were a problem for him and for the British because they were averse to centralised authority.

But if the Nuer did not listen to government-appointed chiefs, they had their own leaders, among them spiritual/religious leaders such as spearmen and rain-makers. Evans-Pritchard saw more promise in the Dinka. He found reassuring their belief that people, even within the same family, are “not as equal as sticks in a match box,” nor “have the same height as the herds of giraffes.”

South Sudanese internally displaced people fight for food supplies, distributed by the ICRC. PHOTO/AFP

The fact is that relations between Dinka and Nuer were not just marked by competition and rivalry. Just as legendry is the historical common sense that every step forward in the history of the region has required by a coming together of Dinka and Nuer in a common cause.

Beginning of the struggle

Historians date the beginning of the Sudanese national movement in 1920s with the formation of the anti-British White Brigade founded by two South Sudanese, Ali Abdalatif, a Dinka and Abdalfadheel El Maz, a Nuer.

Both became known for their role in the 1924 armed uprising against British rule in Sudan. A similar story is told of how collaboration between Kurbino Kuanyin Bol, a Dinka and William Nyuon Beny, a Nuer, both former Sudan army officers, led to the 1983 mutiny in Bor and Ayod. This mutiny led to the founding of SPLA and the onset of the second phase of the North-South struggle.

The British political problem was how to administer and rule mobile semi-pastoral communities with a tradition that combined independence with co-existence in a multi-ethnic region. Their solution was to politicise ethnic identity in a series of steps.

  • To define it sharply as an exclusive identity
  • To identify each ethnicity with a homeland
  • To distinguish between those “indigenous” entitled to “customary” rights and those without such a right
  • To put each homeland under the administration of its appointed ethnic authority that would administer this regime of rights
  • To give that authority the powers to administer land and adjudicate internal conflicts and, finally, to render the absolute power of the authority unaccountable by backing it up with the power of the colonial state, but justifying this absolute and unaccountable power as “customary.”

Modern South Sudan

Ironically, when an autonomous South Sudan began to organise its local government after 2005, it built on the British colonial model rather than attempting to reform it.

President Salva Kiir waves a flag of the SPLM during a political rally in Juba. PHOTO/AFP

The politicisation of ethnicity inevitably led to a fragmentation of South Sudan along ethnic lines. In one local authority after another, those claiming to be ‘indigenous’ to the land fought those who they said lacked a ‘customary’ right to natural resources and who, in turn, demanded their own ethnic homeland.

Only a few years after independence, more and more South Sudanese became ‘Bafuruki’ in their own country.

Take an example from Jonglei, which has a surface area of 123,000 sqkm and is both the largest and the most densely populated of the 10 states in South Sudan. The region is home to six ethnic groups: the Nuer, Dinka, Anyuak, Murle, Kachipo and Jieh. These mobile communities have an equally soft and mobile notion of borders.

 An administrative system resting on a hard notion of a border administered by the majority ethnic group pressing its ‘customary’ right to resources in its ‘homeland’ is bound to turn cooperation between ethnic groups into conflict over previously shared resources. This context has led to the militarisation of local defense units initially set up to protect cattle and property.

As a result of this structure of local government, inter-ethnic conflict in contemporary South Sudan is both a top down and a bottom-up affair.

Why the power struggle

The important point is that internal conflicts, whether in the country or in the ruling SPLA/M, have not just been a contest between rival ethnic groups. From the Boll rebellion that led to the establishment of SPLA in 1983 to independence in 2011 and now, every internal power struggle inside the SPLM has had personal, political and ideological dimensions.

SLPA government soldiers from the 2nd Battalion pose at the SPLA headquarters in Nyang. PHOTO/AFP

South Sudanese jubilate on their Independence Day

Two issues have featured prominently in the mobilisation by ambitious leaders: parity of community (ethnic) representation in the new power, and different views on the direction in which that power would move. Along this road, there have been several bloody splits. The split in December 2013 was the third.

The first bloody split unfolded in the very early stages of the founding of SPLM (1984-85). The key issue was the direction of the struggle: one side called for an independent South Sudan (a continuation of Anyanya as Anyanya II), the other called for a ‘New Sudan.’ Each side drew support from across ethnic boundaries. The call for a ‘New Sudan’ was supported by John Garang (a Dinka), Keribino Kuanyin (Dinka), and William Nyuon (Nuer), whereas the demand for an independent South was led by Samuel Gai Tut (Nuer) and Akuot Atem (Dinka).

The second bloody split came in 1991 when Lam Akol, a senior SPLA commander in Upper Nile, linked up with Riek Machar, another senior commander with a base in Nasir along the Ethiopian border, and called for the replacement of Garang as leader, claiming that Garang had tied the SPLA too closely to the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia in exchange for Ethiopian support, which he used to forestall internal reform.

An injured soldier is hospitalized at Yirol government hospital supported by Italian NGP CUAMM. PHOTO/AFP

This time too, the rebel call combined a heady brew of ideological commitment (dedication to an independent South) with demands for internal reform. In spite of wide support for rebel demands, SPLA ranks were divided on whether or not it was necessary to remove John Garang.

When the rebels were unsuccessful, they formed a break-away faction called SPLM-Nasir under the leadership of Machar.

Blood spilt, more splits

Memories of the 1991 split have gelled around the Bor massacre that same year, when Machar’s forces are said to have slaughtered around 2,000 Dinka civilians. Broad-based before the Bor massacre, the Nasir group narrowed into a more or less exclusive Nuer affair after the spilling of blood.

The Nasir faction renamed itself the South Sudan Independence Movement (SSIM) in the years that followed and in 1997, signed the Khartoum Peace Agreement (KPA) with the Sudan government. Other groups joined, including the SPLA/M-United of Lam Akol, the Equatoria Defence Force (EDF) and Kerubino Kuanyin Bol’s own SPLA/M.

South Sudanese wait in the line for food supplies. PHOTO/AFP

The collaboration that followed made it possible for the Sudan government to pump oil from South Sudan fields in Unity and Upper Nile, but it also turned out to be an interlude. The Khartoum Peace Agreement broke down in 2001.

Machar and some of his forces returned to the SPLM but the rest, led by Paulino Matieb and other generals, stayed behind in Khartoum and formed the South Sudan Defence Forces (SSDF), an organisation that grew into a formidable force under the patronage of the Sudan army.

The SSDF was the last to be integrated into the SPLA/M in 2006, following the CPA. Its integration presented the biggest challenge to the integrity of the SPLA. Like the SPLA, the SSDF was an umbrella military formation; it was also comparable in size to the SPLA. Its integration into the SPLA was the result of an ‘internal’ protocol, signed in 2006. This too was a hastily concluded affair. Comparable to the equally hastily concluded protocols on the three areas, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile and Abyei, it formed the et cetra of the CPA.

An SPLA soldier listens to the directions of a superior at the SPLA headquarters near Yirol. PHOTO/AFP

The integration of the SSDF into SPLA was Kiir’s responsibility. Some consider it his finest achievement; others think of it as his Achilles Heel. With the aging Matieb appointed deputy commander of the SPLA, former SSDF commanders like Peter Gadet, Gordon Kong and others, became generals in the SPLA, and turned its front office into a revolving door that made possible interminable cycles of mutiny and pardon. The ‘reconciliation’ turned out to be a charade that masked the absence of a political reform strategy.

The problem with this unprincipled ‘reconciliation’ was that it was driven by short-term considerations and had unanticipated consequences. The SPLA became a majority Nuer army, drawing 55 to 60% of its recruits from 20% of the population.

The SPLA also became a coalition of ethnic militias, each loyal to its own set of militia leaders. The Nuer-Dinka split in the army was a code word for multiple tensions between historicals and new members, professionals and militia recruits and, above all, between those who only a few years ago had been on opposite sides of changing battle lines.

The key ideological element in these splits involved defining the central objective of the struggle: a new Sudan or an independent South Sudan?

South Sudan's opposition ministers and former political prisoners give a press conference in Addis Ababa. PHOTO/AFP

For Garang, the key lesson of the first phase of the struggle, the phase led by Anyanya, was that the demand for an independent South Sudan, which had made it possible for Khartoum to isolate the South by rallying the rest of the country against it.

Garang concluded that to succeed, the SPLA needed to define an all-Sudan objective so as to rally discontented forces throughout the country and turn the political tables on the power in Khartoum by isolating it. Events proved Garang right.

The SPLA’s greatest victories were in the border areas just across the north-south boundary (Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, Nuba Mountains) and in the western part of the country, Darfur, where its example led to the formation of a parallel movement for autonomy.

But the border areas were opposed to an independent South. When it came to the vote for ‘self-determination’ — independence — they accused the SPLM leadership of betraying their common struggle around the vision for a New Sudan.

Garang’s strategy

Garang’s great contribution was to inspire a vision that made possible a single rallying point around which to mobilise discontent throughout Sudan. His single most important failing was to subordinate this vision to the struggle for power and personal ambition. Faced with the demand for reform, Garang moved to consolidate power.

Fallen leader South Sudanese leader John Garang

The result was that every major struggle, whether ideological or personal, led to a spilling of more blood. And every subsequent blood-letting was resolved through a cosmetic power-sharing strategy, a sharing of positions and resources, which turned out to be no more than an interlude between bloody bouts.

This failure to build an institutional culture that would filter and manage internal differences among leaders contaminated all institutions, above all, the army. The strategy seemed to be working so long as Garang accommodated himself to the demands of the War on Terror and received full support from the US.

The writer is the director of the Makerere institute of social research and a political commentator

(To be continued in Monday's New Vision)

S. Sudan: No power-sharing without political reform